The successor to David Letterman’s recently vacated throne as emperor of late-night TV opened for business on Tuesday with the arrival of Stephen Colbert as the new guy in the saddle on CBS’s Tonight Show. Not to say Colbert automatically inherits Letterman’s ratings matched against NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel; he’ll have to earn that. And, wacky as he can be (usually a good thing in a TV host), Colbert did not complete the oddball trifecta by introducing himself as “Jimmy” Colbert, although the thought may have flickered across his fertile mind.
I’d already heard plenty about Colbert from MAGNET editor Eric T. Miller, an uber fan for as long as I can recall, and after just two shows it’s easy to see the reason for all the hoo-hah. Colbert seems to be something like Letterman with a Boy Scout utility knife. He’s more mobile than the revered Hoosier, opening his debut with forehead-scraping leg kicks worthy of a Radio City Rockette. Colbert even showed a decent voice when he took a solo chorus on the show’s closing number, Sly Stone’s “Everyday People.”
It’s comforting to learn that Colbert is every bit as polically liberal a master of ceremonies as Letterman was. The new boy certainly made his second guest, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, squirm enough that Bush flubbed a few lines when he was asked right off the bat, “Why do you want to be president of the United States?” To no one’s surprise, Colbert informed Bush that he had “zero percent chance” of getting his vote in 2016. Colbert also dredged up a recent quote from Bush’s mother that “two Bush presidents were enough.” The audience loudly hooted its agreement. The Colbert vs. Donald Trump heavyweight collision in the near future ought to be a humdinger.
The debut’s headliner, George Clooney, on board even though he had no project to pitch, seemed right at home even when Colbert admitted he’d never met Clooney before, instead of pretending otherwise as most hosts would have done. Colbert even presented Clooney with a belated wedding gift, a paper weight with “I don’t know you” inscribed on the top, then described Clooney as his wife’s “arm candy,” a notion that drew a chuckle from Clooney.
The second night of Colbert’s regime featured Scarlett Johansson, now married and living in Paris. A segment with the actress lying alongside Colbert on a blanket titled something like “Deep Questions With Big Stars” didn’t really pan out. Better was the second guest Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, who volunteered that Mars would one day be colonized once an atmosphere similar to Earth’s has been created.
Summing up the Letterman aftermath, I will miss his band leader, Paul Schaeffer, a man of impeccable musical taste, more than anyone from Letterman’s former cast. But Colbert’s new band, led by Jon Batiste, seems competent enough to help bridge the gap. Final verdict: Stephen Colbert seems perfectly able to carry on in the grand tradition of Letterman with more than enough interesting character fiords all his own to forge a unique individual late night style.